Posts made in January 2021

Feline groovy: Catnip provides more than a pleasurable high for your kitty

January 25, 2021

The rapturous and intoxicated behavior that cats exhibit when they are gifted with catnip is a good enough reason to keep it in stock for most pet owners. But now, a joint research project conducted in Japan and the UK has found that when felines respond to catnip they aren’t just getting high; there’s a side benefit. Catnip helps protect them from mosquitoes, The Charlotte Observer reports.

It’s all thanks to a substance called nepetalactol, which can be extracted from catnip leaves and from those of a related plant, silver vine. The team learned that this is the substance that causes the crazed rolling and rubbing cats do when they sniff the herbs.

And calling the fuss a “high” isn’t a figure of speech, either. The researchers discovered the substance activates the part of cats’ nervous systems responsible for “euphoric” effects, similar to those found in and experienced by people on drugs.

It’s an event that can last anywhere between five and 15 minutes, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, and is typically followed by a period of unresponsiveness.

After applying a synthetic version of nepetalactol on laboratory paper strips and giving them to cats in the study—both domestic and wild—researchers documented them rubbing, licking, and rolling around, just as they do with catnip-filled toys, the Observer reports. They even tested the substance on larger felines, including a jaguar, leopard and lynx.

But the team didn’t stop there.

Scientists have always been aware of catnip’s ability to ward off thirsty insects, so the researchers placed more nepetalactol-slathered paper strips on the floor, walls and ceilings of some cat cages and unleashed a dozen or so mosquitoes.

Cats that rubbed themselves on the chemical substance were gorged on less than those that did not have the natural repellent on their fur. The same happened when cats were placed in “a more natural setting,” the researchers said.

“We found that the cats’ reaction to silver vine is a chemical defense against mosquitoes, and perhaps against viruses and parasitic insects,” project leader Dr. Masao Miyazaki, a veterinary scientist at Iwate University in Japan, said in a news release.

The research team agrees there’s more to be discovered about catnip and mosquito activity. In future studies, the team hopes to find answers by identifying the gene responsible for cats’ reactions to the plants.

Research contact: @theobserver

The Mega Millions jackpot is $1 billion. What to know before you buy a ticket

January 25, 2021

At some point, whether on Friday night, January 22, or sometime later, on the buyer of one Mega Millions lottery ticket is going to win an insanely high jackpot.

It just probably won’t be you, CNBC reports. For Mega Millions, you have about a 1 in 302 million chance of winning the jackpot.

With the odds stacked against players matching all six numbers needed to hit the mother lode, the lottery game’s top prize has been increased to $1.0 billion (or $739..6 million in cash).

This only the third time in its history that a lotto jackpot has gone so high, Mega Millions says in a press release. The largest jackpot in U.S. history—a $1.59 billion Powerball prize in 2016—was split three ways.

“We know that players love big jackpots, and when the numbers are this big, it becomes a national phenomenon,” said Gordon Medenica, Maryland lottery director and lead director of Mega Millions.

“Everyone wants to dream about what they’d do if they won.”

The Mega Millions jackpot has been climbing since mid-September, when someone scored $120 million ($95.4 million cash) and the top prize reset to $20 million. That’s 37 weeks of no one matching all six numbers in twice-weekly drawings, marking the longest stretch ever with no winner, according to lottery officials.

However, CNBC cautions, Even if you buy multiple tickets, you wouldn’t move the needle much. To give yourself even a 50-50 chance of winning the Mega Millions jackpo—i.e., the same odds when you flip a coin once—you’d have to buy more than 151 million different number combinations. Even then, you wouldn’t be able to guarantee that you’re the only winner.

For the drawing this weekend, lottery officials estimate that 40% of all possible number combinations will be played.

Of course, you can win in the game without hitting the jackpot. The last Mega Millions drawing, held Tuesday night, produced nearly 5.2 million winning tickets, according to lottery data. That included two winners of $2 million each, 11 winners of $1 million each and 139 winners who nabbed at least $10,000.

Once the Mega Millions jackpot is won, it will reset to $20 million.

Research contact: @CNBC

Biden plans executive action to expand food stamps and speed stimulus checks

January 25, 2021

President Joe Biden plans to issue two Executive Orders on Friday, January 22—aimed at speeding additional federal aid to American families struggling to afford food amid the COVID-19 pandemic; as well as at helping workers stay safe on the job, The New York Times reports.

Biden, who has vowed to use the power of the presidency to help mitigate economic fallout from the pandemic, will also direct the Treasury Department, now to be helmed by Janet Yellen, to find ways to deliver stimulus checks to millions of eligible Americans who have not yet received the funds.

The president also plans to sign a second Executive Order that will lay the groundwork for the federal government to institute a $15 an hour minimum wage for its employees and contract workers, while making it easier for federal workers to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

The actions are part of an attempt by Mr. Biden to override his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, on issues pertaining to workers, the economym and the federal safety net, the Times notes. The orders Biden will sign on Friday signal a break from the Trump Administration’s attempts to limit the scope of many federal benefits that Trump officials said created a disincentive for Americans to work.

Mr. Biden has issued a series of economic orders in his first days in the White House, which his aides have cast as emergency relief for Americans struggling in the Covid economy. He has also called on Congress to approve a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package in the coming weeks.

“We are at a precarious moment in our economy,” Brian Deese, who directs the National Economic Council, told reporters in a call previewing the orders. “The American people cannot afford to wait. So many are hanging by a thread.”

The orders that Biden is signing are intended to increase the weekly value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps, for about 12 million families who depend on the program the most, according to White House estimates. The aid would increase weekly benefits by 15% to 20% for a family of four, Deese said. Congress approved enhanced benefits as part of its economic aid efforts last year, but the Trump administration did not expand benefits for households receiving the maximum benefit under the program.

The order also will increase the value of an emergency benefit, also included in economic rescue legislation, to provide money for families to replace the free meals students would have been receiving at school before the pandemic forced students out of classrooms. That expansion would amount to an extra $100 every two months for a family of three.

The president also will seek to allow workers to draw unemployment benefits if they quit jobs they fear are unsafe amid the pandemic, by asserting “that workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health, and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance,” White House officials said in a fact sheet detailing the orders.

To help struggling individuals and families, Mr. Biden will direct the Treasury Department to find new ways to get stimulus checks, including $600 checks passed in December and $1,200 checks passed in March, to as many as eight million eligible people who have not yet received them.

The second order also will direct federal agencies to determine which of their workers earn less than $15 an hour, and to develop “recommendations to promote a $15 per hour minimum wage for them,” the fact sheet said.  Biden has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers.

Research contact: @nytimes

 

Contest: Can Robert Bigelow (and the rest of us) survive death?

January 22, 2021

Is there an Other Side? Robert Thomas Bigelow would like to know—and he’s offering nearly $1 million in prizes to the person(s) who can give him the answer, The New York Times reports.

Bigelow is not just anyone, or any 75-year-old, mourning a wife and a son, and confronting his own mortality. The Times describes him as “a maverick Las Vegas real estate and aerospace mogul with billionaire allure and the resources to fund his restless curiosity embracing outer and inner space, U.F.O.s, and the spirit realm.”

But, specifically, what he is looking for is “the best evidence for “the survival of consciousness after permanent bodily death.”

It’s a daunting quest, perhaps fringe to some, but the shaggy maned and mustached entrepreneur, the sole owner of Bigelow Aerospace and Budget Suites of America, is not easily discouraged.

The money he has made from his business ventures has enabled Bigelow to indulge a celebrated, if sometimes derided, interest in what he called “anomalous events” including his 20-year ownership of a spooky Utah ranch overrun by flying orbs and other creepy phenomena.

Indeed, the strange goings-on at the ranch drew the interest of the Defense Intelligence Agency and, through funding secured by Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader, led to the formation of a Pentagon effort to study unidentified flying objects—the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Programrevealed by The New York Times in 2017.

Now retired, Reid told the Times that Bigelow is “brilliant” and said they developed a close working relationship—noting, “He’s looked into areas other people only think about.”

Last June, four months after bone marrow disease and leukemia claimed the life of his wife of 55 years, Diane Mona Bigelow, at 72, Mr. Bigelow quietly founded the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies to support research into what happens after death. But he may have been interested in the afterlife for more than a decade before that: His son, Rod Lee Bigelow, died of suicide in March 1992.

Entrants must qualify as serious researchers by February 28, with a record of at least five years of study of the field and preferably an affiliation with groups like the Society for Psychical Research in Britain. Submissions of up to 25,000 words are due by August 1, to be judged by a panel of specialists. Bigelow said he had an idea what that best evidence might be, but “it would be prejudicial to say.”

The panel to judge the submissions includes Dr. Christopher C. Green, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State College of Medicine who served with the Central Intelligence Agency; Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University; and the investigative reporter Leslie Kean, the author of the 2017 book “Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence For an Afterlife,” the basis of a six-part series on Netflix.

Winners will be announced on November 1. Bigelow said that of two “Holy Grail” question—whether bodily death marked the end of existence and whether we are alone in the cosmos—he put survival of consciousness first, with a special moral aspect. “It may matter what you do while you’re here,” he said. “It could make a difference on the other side.”

Research contact: @nytimes

Mindbody app introduces first virtual consumer membership program

January 22, 2021

Mindbody—a leading technology platform for the wellness industry based in San Luis Obispo, California—has announced the launch of Mindbody Flex, its first membership offer that includes virtual access to more than 350 premier fitness studios.

Leveraging Mindbody’s online consumer marketplace—which features tens of thousands of fitness studios—members now are able to use the app to experience the best of these virtual offerings through one monthly subscription.

Using Mindbody Flex’s integrated software, members will have access to workouts and classes from studios including Exhale, Wundabar Pilates, Modo Yoga, Barre3 and Jabz Boxing, in addition to hundreds of local studios nationwide.

“At Mindbody, we are proud to serve as the technology platform for countless wellness businesses, small and large, across the globe,” company CEO Josh McCarter said in a press release, adding, “What is so exciting about Flex is the ability we now have to connect consumers to the best of these virtual offerings via one, fluid membership. We know people value a local and authentic connection in their fitness routine, and we look forward to delivering these personalized experiences in a more accessible and convenient way.”

The Mindbody Flex membership is priced starting at $39 per month which includes five equipment-optional, livestream classes (up to three times per studio), access to new studios and classes added weekly and the ability to auto-renew monthly with a ‘cancel anytime’ option. Memberships also are available at $59 for 10 livestream classes; and $99 for 20.

Research contact: @askmindbody

President Biden to sign executive actions aimed at ending COVID pandemic

January 22, 2021

On first full day in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden is expected to sign a second set of executive actions, aimed at making good on his plans to use the might of the federal government to end the coronavirus pandemic, The Guardian reports.

His administration plans a coordinated federal coronavirus response aimed at restoring trust in the government and focused on boosting vaccines, increasing testing, reopening schools, and addressing inequalities thrown up by the disease.

“We can and will beat COVID-19. America deserves a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data and public health—not politics,” the White House said in a statement outlining the administration’s national strategy on COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness.

The administration’s new strategy is based around seven major goals:

  1. Restoring public trust in government efforts;
  2. Getting more vaccine doses into more arms;
  3. Mitigating the spread—including mask mandates;
  4. Emergency economic relief;
  5. A strategy to get schools and workers functioning ag;
  6. Establishing an equity task force to address disparities in suffering involving issues of race, ethnicity and geography; and
  7. Preparing for future threats.

According to The Guardian, Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days and reverse the impact of a year of mismanaged response under Donald Trump that saw more than 400,000 people die and more than 24 million infected – by far the worst rates in the world.

But his executive orders are set to go far beyond just boosting vaccination efforts.

The 46th U.S. president plans to re-engage with the World Health Organization—a reversal from the Trump administration’s move to cut ties during the pandemic. In other moves, the new administration says it plans to set up pandemic testing and vaccination sites, and devise a speedy vaccine distribution program.

On traveling, Biden will sign an executive order requiring people to wear a mask on trains, airplanes and maritime vessels. Another Health and Human Services to give guidance on safely reopening schools.

Biden also will release a presidential memorandum utilizing the FEMA disaster relief fund for providing reimbursement for personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning, and costs needed to safely reopen schools.

The Biden administration is also looking to fix supply shortfalls. Biden plans to direct federal agencies to fulfill supply shortfalls using the Defense Production Act.

Biden will restore a White House team on global health risks set up under Barack Obama and dismantled under Donald Trump.

The executive orders aim to help people of color in particular. One will set up the COVID-19 health equity taskforce.

Biden will issue an order to develop a national strategy to reopen schools, hoping to meet his goal of having most elementary and middle schools open within his first 100 days in office and will ask Congress to provide $130 billion additional aid to schools, $35 billion for colleges and universities, $25 billion for child care centers at risk of closing and $15 billion in childcare aid for struggling families.

Research contact: @GuardianUS

Battle royal: Thomas Markle’s plans new documentary on his split from Meghan

January 20, 2021

In January 2020, Meghan Markle’s father Thomas Markle, starred in a Channel 5 British documentary in which he tried to set the record straight about the seemingly strained relationship between him and his daughter. However, Markle has since revealed to The Sun that he wasn’t happy with the finished product, and intends to release a new film; which will chronicle his life from his career in television and raising Meghan to more recent event—including his absence from the royal wedding.

Now, Good Morning Britain has aired “everything we know about Thomas Markle’s new documentary”—and Bustle has reported the details.

Hoping to have the documentary “completed later this year,” Markle told the Sun that he hopes the project will help him to “figure out what went wrong” in his relationship with his daughter. “It begins with my life, my family, and my love of theatre and television and how I got there,” Markle explained. It will follow his “life with Meghan, growing up, her school days until she went off to college, and when her career began.”

Featuring unseen home footage of Meghan’s upbringing, Markle wanted to portray what he believes to be a truer version of events than what was shown in the previous documentary. “It was not edited in the correct order, dates were wrong, and it had too much generic public domain film added,” he told the Sun. “My documentary will have some new videos and my favourite photo of my ‘baby girl’ […] I think we will do a good job.”

The former Channel 5 version, titled Thomas Markle: My Story, saw Markle set the record straight in a one-on-one interview with the broadcaster. It covered the “staged” paparazzi photos that were released prior to Meghan and Harry’s wedding, as well as Markle not being able to attend the wedding due to serious health problems. The documentary also covered the publication of Meghan’s private letter to her father, and why Markle decided to publish part of it in British tabloids.

Research contact: @bustle

Parler reappears with help from Russian-owned security service

January 20, 2021

Parler—a social network similar to Twitter to which then-President Donald Trump fled after he was tossed off his @realDonaldTrump feed for bad behavior—has reappeared.

Early in January, Parler also was taken down—by big tech companies Apple, Google, and Amazon after it was used by members to send messages inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol. However, its website is back  up—powered by a hosting service from DDoS-Guard, a Web security service that is owned by two Russians, according to a report by The Boston Globe.

“Our return is inevitable due to hard work and persistence against all odds,” CEO John Matze wrote in a new post—the latest since Amazon Web Services stopped hosting the site and it was banned from Apple and Google’s app stores. “Despite the threats and harassment not one Parler employee has quit. We are becoming closer and stronger as a team.”

According to the Globe, public data associated with the Parler.com domain name shows that one of the Internet servers it directs visitors to is routed via DDoS-Guard. Another server, specifically for routing Parler.com e-mail but not website content, is an Outlook.com address, operated by Microsoft.

A spokesperson for DDoS-Guard said the company was not hosting Parler and declined to comment on what services it was providing to the social media app. It confirmed it did store customer data as part of its offering.

On Sunday, January 17, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended Apple’s decision to delist the Parler app despite complaints from critics that the move impinges on free speech.

“We looked at the incitement to violence that was on there,” Cook said on Fox News Sunday, adding, ”We don’t consider that free speech and incitement to violence has an intersection.”

Parler’s domain name is now registered with Epik, a website services company based in Sammamish, Washington, according to public records made available by Internet regulator Icann. Epik is also the domain registrar for Gab, another less restrictive social networking site popular with the far right.

Most of the features on Parler.com appeared to remain down early Tuesday, the Globe reports—besides statements from Matze and other employees. Members are unable to log in or post messages and the app is still unavailable in the Apple or Google Play stores.

Microsoft didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Epik said in a sprawling statement on its website from JanIuary 11 that it’s had “no contact or discussions with Parler in any form.” The statement also addressed propaganda, breakdowns in civil society, and editorial malfeasance on the part of “major media owners.”

Before its ban, Parler—which has less restrictive terms dictating what members can post and was endorsed by some Republican lawmakers and media figures—had seen a surge in users as Twitter and Facebook banished outgoing President Trump along with users and groups that supported the violence.

Research contact: @BostonGlobe

 

President Joe Biden’s plea for the soul of America: ‘End this uncivil war’

January 20, 2021

Speaking from the West Front of the U.S. Capitol after a violent insurrection there claimed five lives on January 6, President Joe Biden’s first words as president offered Americans strong and direct reassurance that the most fundamental component of the nation’s government would remain intact, The Daily Beast reports.

“This is democracy’s day,” he said, minutes after being sworn into office by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as the 46th president of the United States. “A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge.”

“The people,” he continued, “the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

Biden, 78, addressed two threats that have worsened under President Donald Trump’s administration, the unchecked coronavirus pandemic and the growing presence of terrorism at home—which only two weeks ago arrived at the very platform from which Biden spoke. Standing resolutely, his jacket pinned with a small American flag on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, the president championed the “restless, bold, optimistic” collective pursuit of restoring what has been lost.

In an acknowledgement of the still bitterly divided national political climate—which is expected to continue long after Biden’s first few days in office—he called on citizens to help de-escalate the rampant partisanship, the Globe said.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”

Throughout his 20-minute address, Biden strove to provide a positive outlook for the nation’s future, seeking to remind viewers that, despite strife, sadness, and anger, his administration will offer a unified approach. He pledged to pen a new chapter in the “American story.”

A significant part of that book includes an historic start. “Today we mark the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said, beaming with pride for his number 2, who was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“My whole soul is in it,” Biden said. “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause,” he continued, to applause, listing off the “foes” he plans to combat: “Anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.”

“America is once again the leading force for good in the world,” he said.

Research contact: @BostonGlobe

Gasp! If you have asthma, researchers find you might be at lower risk for COVID

January 20, 2021

You know the factors that put you at an increased risk of a severe battle with the novel coronavirus: your age, your weight, and any preexisting conditions you may have, to name a few.

But what factors might keep you safer? According to new research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, one surprising group may be less apt to contract COVID-19—and that’s people with asthma.

According to a report by Best Life, the research was conducted by an Israeli team, who tested 37,469 patients— 6% percent of whom were positive for the virus. Among that infected group, 6.75% had asthma. However, among patients who were negative for the virus, 9.62 percent of them were asthmatic. As a result, the researchers concluded that there’s “lower COVID-19 susceptibility in patients with preexisting asthma.”

According to the U.S. enters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that means that the 7.7 percent of American adults and 7.5 percent of American children who have asthma may be somewhat protected from the virus.

Given that COVID-19 most commonly attacks the lungs and breathing system, these findings may seem counterintuitive. But there are a few possible explanations for this, according to researcher Eugene Merzon, MD, of Tel-Aviv University.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Merzon gave three reasons for the extra level of safety that people asthma enjoy:

  • First, asthmatics have lower levels of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors—the mechanism by which the novel coronavirus attaches to and infects cell;
  • Secondly, asthmatics take more lifestyle precautions that could help them avoid contracting COVID-1, because they know that the impact of it may be more serious; and
  • Thirdly, the treatments patients routinely take for asthma, specifically inhaled coricosteroids (ICS), also may reduce their risk of catching the virus.

That being said, according to Best Life, Merzon advised caution, as the study only looked at hospital in-patients. “All these prevalence data were derived from the COVID-19 inpatient population,” the researchers wrote. “Therefore, the prevalence of asthma may be different in outpatient patients with COVID-19.”

However, the research supports previous findings on asthma and coronaviruses: In studies also cited by the researchers, patients with asthma appeared to have fared better in earlier outbreaks of acute respiratory conditions, like the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Research contact: @BestLifeOnline